Article Note: Julio de la Cueva, “Violent Culture Wars: Religion and Revolution in Mexico, Russia and Spain in the Interwar Period”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 25, Number 3 (September 2019)

Article Note: Julio de la Cueva, “Violent Culture Wars: Religion and Revolution in Mexico, Russia and Spain in the Interwar Period,” Journal of Contemporary History 53:3 (2018): 503-523.

By Heath Spencer, Seattle University

In this article, Julio de la Cueva explores the role of anticlericalism in early twentieth-century revolutionary movements that saw “defeat of religion…either as a necessary condition for revolution or as an equally necessary result” (503).  He describes the antireligious violence that occurred in Mexico, Russia, and Spain during this period as the most extreme manifestation of a “second Kulturkampf” inspired by the French Revolution and the subsequent culture wars of the “long nineteenth century” (504).  As was true of their counterparts in those earlier conflicts, revolutionaries of the early twentieth century believed that organized religion was an obstacle to progress and the achievement of their goals, hence the “violent culture wars” embedded in these three revolutionary struggles.

Mexican revolutionaries alternated between attempts to reform the Catholic Church and get rid of it altogether.  During the period of war and violence that began in 1910, they confiscated church property, desecrated or destroyed sacred spaces and objects, and imprisoned or expelled priests and believers who opposed them.  The Constitution of 1917 significantly curtailed the public power and legal privileges of the Church, outlawed religious orders, secularized education, and gave state governments permission to limit the number of priests within their territories.  Vigorous enforcement of these measures by President Plutarco Elías Calles (1924-1928) and his successors led to armed resistance by devout Catholics in the Cristero War, in the course of which at least 70,000 persons were killed.  The state responded with a “defanaticization” campaign and attempted to suppress Catholic worship across much of Mexico.  After nearly a decade of intermittent religious war, President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934-1940) recognized the futility of the state’s approach and allowed churches to reopen and priests and bishops to return.  “By 1938, the savage confrontation between the Revolution and the Catholic Church had come to an end in Mexico” (510).

De la Cueva identifies several notable differences between the Mexican and Russian revolutions, including a much higher death toll and a more sustained and intense campaign to eradicate religion in the latter case.  Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks’ initial moves were similar to those of Mexico’s revolutionaries.  They nationalized church lands, transferred church schools to state control, “deprived the churches of legal personality,” and waged a propaganda campaign against religious institutions and traditions (512).  Physical violence against clergy and believers increased during the civil war but subsided by the end of 1922 as the state adopted a less aggressive approach and church leaders became more submissive to the new regime.  However, this “semi-tolerance” gave way to renewed persecution under Stalin; by 1941, fewer than 1000 churches were still open (of the 60,000 that existed before the revolution) and only 5,665 priests remained (in comparison with 112,629 in 1914).  Although the Soviet state had gone a long way toward dismantling the Orthodox Church, many Soviet citizens, especially in rural communities, remained committed to Orthodox Christianity.  De la Cueva sees parallels with the Mexican case in this respect as well.

Revolutionary anticlerical violence during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) bore a resemblance to what occurred in these other revolutions.  As in Mexico, Spanish revolutionaries drew on older traditions of elite and popular anticlericalism dating back to the late eighteenth century.  The proclamation of the Second Republic and the Constitution of 1931 were stridently secular, calling for the separation of church and state, secular education, and the dissolution of the Jesuit Order.  A wave of anticlerical violence in that same year led to the destruction of 100 religious buildings over a period of five days, and attacks on clergy began to increase as well.  The most intense period of revolutionary anticlerical violence occurred during the civil war, in which 6,733 priests were killed (71 percent of them between July and September 1936).  However, unlike the Mexican and Russian cases, much of this violence was initiated by local actors rather than central authorities.  It came to an end in 1939 when Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces defeated the Republican government and restored the church to a place of prominence in Spanish society.

De la Cueva notes that radical movements from the French Revolution onward have identified revolution with the suppression or destruction of religion, but he highlights the variations as well.  Attacks on church property and acts of iconoclasm were common across all three cases in this article, but only in the Soviet Union (and to a lesser extent Spain) did violence threaten to eradicate the clergy entirely.  In Mexico and the Soviet Union, the state played a central role in coordinating antireligious violence and anticlerical policies, whereas in Spain the initiative came from diverse local actors on the political left who shared a “powerful anticlerical identity” (516).  Despite Pope Pius XI’s emphasis on “atheistic communism” in his encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937), communist ideology played only a small role in the anticlerical violence that occurred in Spain, and hardly any at all in the case of Mexico.  The encyclical correctly identified Mexico, Russia and Spain as epicenters of religious persecution but was overly simplistic in its assessment of the ideological and contextual factors that were driving it.

De la Cueva begins and ends his article with a call for additional transnational comparisons as well as the integration of “different explanatory models that have been offered of antireligious violence in each country” (503).  He hopes “to stimulate a dialogue between the histories and the historians of the early twentieth century revolutionary regimes” (523).  Contemporary church historians will also find his work helpful in terms of understanding the moral panic and political and cultural polarization that led many Christians to seek the protection of fascist and far-right regimes during the interwar period, an alternative that proved to be equally perilous for the churches and their members.